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The value of putting words to desire

Updated: Jun 14

'If you can sit in your seat and be at the receiving end of attention, and not have it harm you and not do any harm to the person who is providing it. Assuming that what they are saying is inviting, assuming that what they are saying, recognises you. It doesn't demean or diminish you, but recognises all of who you are. You can sit in your seat and you can receive that and you can make yourself available to benefit from it, then know in turn what you feel towards the other person. That's the safest sex you will ever have’ (Group, 2020.)

Good enough psychological therapy involves these sort of interactions. Moreover, the professional boundaries of psychological therapy encourage these interactions. This is because psychological therapy is different to physically caring for someone. Instead, some parts of reality remain in fantasy.

'[So] because you are my therapist I can imagine you to be my perfect partner' (Benjamin, 1995.)

Such imaginings are likely to include erotic idealisations. Erotic, meaning relating to, or tending to arouse, sexual desire/excitement. Erotic idealisations in therapy can be unhelpful (Renn, 2020.)

One way therapists can make them more helpful is by communicating the common erotic idealisations of therapists. Perhaps of rescuer and/or saviour; of completing the other; the ideal parent; seeing ourselves as innocent and omnipotent in the face of another person's needs. Amongst many more (Benjamin,1995.)

Potentially reducing guilt, or shame, for the client in their own erotic idealisation. Reminding the client that erotic idealisations are both ordinary and unavoidable. Indeed, it often seems, the unconscious mind only wants to kill or have sex with other people (Gabbard, 2006.)

Erotic idealisations may also be helpfully discussed. Demonstrating the value of putting words to our desire. Helpful additional interactions with which to create relationships. So with practise the client can remember/learn how other people can become both useful objects and collaborative subjects for them. Independent from each other and yet dependent on each other. Both separate and similar. A fuller description of the helpful, and unhelpful, uses of erotic idealisation in therapy can be found below :

Helpful uses of erotic idealisation

1) As a source for the practise of giving and receiving compliments. As part of how we learn to like each other. As a means to enjoy each other's company. As caricatures of our true selves. To help the repair of ruptures in the relationship. In recognising the commonality of this mutual activity.

2) As an additional way to regulate intimacy. A form of distancing/approach and so retain a sense of control. Reducing overwhelming anxiety or helplessness. Recognising that sexuality can be a helpful place to go, an achievement. That sometimes reduces the possibility of violence.

3) For placing the relationship in the context of other relationships and wider culture. In recognising who we each other look like and who we remind each other of. Including other fantasies and real relationships. Helping remember other minds.

4) As a means to ground ourselves in our capacity for self deception. As a means to identify the non erotic parts of life and our subconscious minds.

5) As a way to communicate our effect on each other. So as to understand ourselves better and recognise both parties interpersonal power, to help and/or harm each other.

Unhelpful uses of erotic idealisation

1) Sustaining unrealistic hopes e.g. perfect reparation by another person; that things might not need to be discussed; that difficult experience may not need to be borne.

2) Promoting 'magical acts of a desperate person' (Phillips, 2013.) Acting to change the reality of a relationship through strength of feeling. Just as a child does in a tantrum. Maybe seeking triumph over authority or another person's vulnerability. A type of un-consented sadomasochistic sexual excitement. Interactions that do not seem in the client's best interest (Perry, July 8, 2020.)

3) Using idealisation to prompt physical contact. Physical contact is culturally ambiguous. For example a hug can be mistaken for a cuddle. Depending on how each person interprets the same act. Physical contact needs to be practised in other relationships ( Briscoe, 2020.)

The value of putting words to desire

In sum, erotic idealisations in professional therapeutic practice are both inevitable and potent. Moreover there are both helpful, and unhelpful, uses of them in therapy. I suggest that therapists, and clients, who are aware of these possibilities and practise the helpful ones, are likely to achieve safer, and more effective, clinical practise.


Benjamin, J. (1995). Like subjects, love objects: Essays on recognition and sexual difference. Yale University Press.

Briscoe, J. (2020). What happens when your relationship with your therapist turns into and affair. The Observer,

Gabbard, G. O. (2006). The Schopenhauer Cure: A Novel. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(6), 1118-1118.

Group (2020). S1, Ep7: Breaking the rules, YouTube,

Perry, A., (July 8, 2020). Some ethics of co-productive relationships,

Phillips, A. (2013). The magical act of a desperate person: on tantrums. The London Review of Books, 35(5), 19-20.

Renn, P. (2020). A Relational perspective on enactments, boundary violations and self disclosure, Therapy route,

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